advertisement

For those who cruise to get away from civilization and the traffic, crowds, shopping malls, and fast-food joints that go along with it, check out these gorgeous back-to-nature ports that are all about dialing it down a few notches and reveling in the natural world.

Because of their size and agility, it's typically the smaller ships that venture off the beaten path to the world's most cherished natural wonders. Small-ship lines, including Linblad Expeditions, Cruise West, Travel Dynamics, Quark Expeditions, Paul Gauguin Cruises, Hurtigruten and Celebrity Xpeditions, tend to focus on learning-oriented adventure, with expert naturalist guides on board to lead excursions and shed light on the regions' wildlife and landscape. Large cruise ships can also visit many of the ports below, though they may not be able to get into all of the remote waterways and harbors that the smaller ships can handle.

Galápagos Islands, Ecuador

Some 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, the remote Galápagos Islands are best known for being the stomping ground of Charles Darwin, who came to the islands nearly two centuries ago to pursue his research on evolution and natural selection. Following in Darwin's footsteps, trek among tame iguanas and blue-footed boobies, or frolic with doe-eyed sea lion pups on the beach. Get your feet wet and snorkel right off the side of small motorboats (pangas) near the island of Floreana, where you can check out schools of parrotfish and playful penguins. On Santa Cruz and Isabela islands, you can see giant tortoises close up.

South Georgia, Antarctica

If you're looking for abundant wildlife combined with a landscape of ice floes, glaciers and snowy peaks, the best itineraries include the Falkland and South Georgia Islands, as well as Antarctica. Landings by zodiac craft bring passengers right up to shore lines teaming with wildlife. In Gold Harbor, for instance, there are more than 100,000 king penguins, plus thousands of seabirds, not to mention four-ton elephant seals splayed on the beach in the spring. While on a cruise to these parts, you'll likely spot five different species of seals and lots of whales --- don't forget a spare camera battery.

Hellesylt/Geiranger, Norway

The Norwegian Fjords are some of the most beautiful places on earth. From Hellesylt or Geiranger in the south, typical excursions involve a scenic drive along winding switchback-y roads with great views of waterfalls, mineral-rich mountain lakes, charming fishing villages and those massive fjords, flooded valleys carved out of granite walls by glaciers millions of years ago. The best tour from Hellesylt features a 10-km hike that follows a medieval footpath and weaves along a fjord, through hilly farmland dotted with rustic cottages covered by grass roofs (for insulation), and down tree-lined cow paths. All along the walk, snow-capped peaks hover in the distance creating a dramatic natural scene that takes your breath away.

Tahaa, French Polynesia

You have to see it to believe it -- the teal-green lagoons and amazing undersea life of French Polynesia's 118 palm-tree-fringed islands and atolls will change your life. Snorkeling here is as good as it gets; the lagoons, motus (islets), and barrier reefs here make the perfect environment for exotic sea life to thrive. Just a few feet below the warm sea, offshore Tahaa is an underwater world of fuchsia sea anemones, ridged clams shells in bright purple and green, and Checkerboard Wrasse fish decked out in an electric rainbow of color. Further out, divers are thrilled to easily spot black- and white-tipped reef sharks and lemon sharks.

Corcovado National Park, Costa Rica

Cruises that call on Costa Rica are in for a sea of natural beauty, from rain forests to national parks, mountains, and beaches. One of the most popular ports of call in Costa Rica is the Corcovado National Park, a rain forest with some 500 species of trees and around 140 types of mammals, including jaguar and scarlet macaws. Manuel Antonio Park is another worthwhile excursion in Costa Rica, where the draw is the stunning white-sand beaches and hundreds of animal species, from monkeys to iguanas, agoutis, sloth, and the rare turquoise cotinga.

Sitka, Alaska

Ships big and small can call on Sitka, a rustic town along the coast of Baranof Island in southeast Alaska. Originally a Tlingit clan stronghold, Russian fur traders established a presence in Sitka two centuries ago and the town still preserves its rich history (matryoshka nesting dolls are the souvenir of choice). Still, the main reason to come here is to take a walk though Sitka's National Historic Park. A trail winds through a rain forest and along the coast of the 113-acre park, where hemlock and spruce trees tower over head and an impressive collection of totem poles mingles with the flora.

St. John, U.S. Virgin Islands

Less crowded than bustling sister island St. Thomas, St. John is among the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean. Half of the mountainous 19-square-foot island and its shoreline are preserved as the Virgin Islands National Park, with lots of hiking trails and more than 20 miles of biking trails. The island's famous Trunk Bay beach, a stretch of coconut palm-lined white sand, is also protected by the U.S. National Park Service and offers a self-guided snorkeling trail just offshore.

Belize City, Belize

Bordering Mexico and Guatemala, Belize has a 185-mile coral reef that runs the entire length of the country. It also boasts countless lagoons, shoals, and more than 1,000 tiny islands called cayes. On excursions from Belize City, snorkelers and divers can commune with reef fish, sponge, coral, southern stingrays, and nurse sharks. On inland drives, hikes, and river boat trips, traverse through mangroves and jungles while looking for crocodiles basking in the sun, lots of birds (including jaçanas and hawks), delicate water lilies, and other exotic flowers such as black orchids. Don't forget to look up in the trees to spot toucans, spider monkeys, and the very vocal howler monkeys (even if you don't see them, you'll surely hear them).

Bar Harbor, Maine

A short hop from the docks in Bar Harbor is Acadia National Park, a natural oasis of fir and spruce trees and lakes that cover most of the 12-by-16-mile Mount Desert Island. Winding throughout the park's 35,000 acres is a 57-mile network of carriage roads created by John D. Rockefeller, Jr., as well as 120 miles of hiking trails -- all of them motor-free, open for walking and bicycling only. Rent a bike to explore the park, or sign up for a ship tour and see it via carriage or bus. Tours typically include a visit to the top of Cadillac Mountain for 360-degree views and a stop at Thunder Hole, where the right tidal conditions can send flumes of ocean spray high into the air.